BEDFORD, Va. (AP) — It began when the caretakers of the Cloverlea Farmhouse at the Claytor Nature Center in Bedford decided it was time to clean out the attic.
The attic space above the circa-1790s house had been left untouched in the more than 20 years since the house and its almost 500 acres were donated by Andrew Boyd Claytor III to Lynchburg College, now the University of Lynchburg.
The attic simply wasn’t a priority, said Maggy Liell, groundskeeper and caretaker for the Cloverlea Farmhouse. After all, the staff thought those old, tattered boxes housed wrapping paper and Christmas decorations or nothing at all.
But when they finally set to work carrying down those boxes this past fall, they found something more — a treasure trove of old stamps and envelopes, a World War II uniform, ancient wooden skis, blueprints for additions on the house, a Remington typewriter, Audubon prints, and so much more.
“Every box we went into, if it wasn’t Christmas decorations, it was something cool that we wanted to explore and go through,” said Trish Cerulli, outreach coordinator.
These finds are splayed across the dining room table and the buffet and even more boxes line an upstairs bedroom waiting to be explored.
All of these finds inspired Cloverlea’s staff and volunteers. They want to share this history with visitors — not just those who rent the home and its grounds for weddings and events but for others who just want to explore a little history at the picturesque estate nestled against the Peaks of Otter.
Boyd and Virginia Claytor purchased the house in 1957, but the finds in those tattered old boxes in the attic date back generations.
“Imagine just this green kind of eaten up, torn-on-the-side box,” Cerulli said. “It was just one of the many boxes that were up there. But when I opened it up, it was just a mishmash of stamps and letters. Many of them were loose. Just stacks of envelopes.”
Knowing she had stumbled upon a stamp collection and she knew nothing about stamps, Cerulli enlisted the help of stamp collectors to help her sort through what was there.
“We still haven’t gone through everything with a fine tooth comb,” she said. “The really awesome thing is found in hundreds of old postcards dating back to 1875.”
The papers the staff found were far older than they expected and referred to people with names that didn’t track with people known to have lived in the house.
The collection seems to have started in the Mitchell family of Bedford County, wrote Raymond L. Bradley in an article on the finds entitled “Placing a Stamp on History.”
The eldest daughter, Fannie Ellen Mitchell married David Preston Parr, Jr., who became president of the Bolling-Wright tobacco company and editor of the Bedford Index newspaper. Fannie’s sister, Martha Louise Mitchell, married Bedford County deputy clerk Robert Steptoe Quarles in 1871.
The oldest stamp in the collection dates to 1875, and the oldest postcards were addressed to the Clerk of Bedford County Court, Robert S. Quarles, who died in 1893. His widow couldn’t support her nine children alone, so Fannie and her husband took them in.
Among the post cards are 102 cards “addressed to ‘Mr. D. P. Parr Jr.’ sent from the cashier of the First National Bank of Durham, N.C. Business was good for Preston. Nearly every day, he received one of these postcards from the bank verifying check deposits received and credited to the Bolling-Wright Company account. The most common amount deposited per check was $144.06. One wonders what tobacco product the Bolling-Wright Company sold for this amount,” Bradley wrote.
How the records ended up in the attic of the Cloverlea farmhouse became clearer as Bradley and his sister, Athena Markham, began to dig into some genealogy.
“But how did this get to Boyds’ attic — none of this stuff makes sense until you realize that one of Boyd’s relatives married into the Parr family,” Bradley said. “All of these documents had been maintained for financial reasons, until the teenage Andrew Boyd was able to dig through them and add them to his collection. You realize this teenager was able to use all his family connections to collect these letters.”
Envelopes addressed to Mrs. A. Boyd Claytor bore postmarks dated 1893. The envelopes must have referenced Lucie Phillips Parr Claytor and her husband, Andrew Boyd Claytor Sr., who married in 1889 and had nine children.
Envelopes stamped with “Soldier’s Mail” give nod to the military history of the family — Andrew Boyd Claytor Jr. served during World War I and his son served in World War II. Virginia Claytor’s father Lloyd Arnold served in the armed forces as well.
Other documents in the attic reflect the Claytor family’s connection to Bedford-based Southern Flavorings. The company began when Andrew Boyd Claytor, Jr.’s younger brother, William Graham Claytor and sisters, Katherine Parr Claytor and Mary Fred Claytor, started a mail order business in their home in 1929.
The collection appears to have ended with a Southern Flavorings Company envelope dated 1941.
That helped Bradley and Markham decipher who was responsible for the collection — Andrew Boyd Claytor III, son of Andrew Boyd Claytor Jr. and Emily Minnigerode Claytor.
He turned 16 in 1941, and became involved in sports in his final years of school before becoming a U.S. Navy pilot in 1943.
“I am fairly certain that if Boyd were alive today, he would be pleased to know that his stamp collection helped preserve a little bit of the history of his family and Bedford County, Virginia,” Bradley wrote.
The formal dining room now is the workspace, its table littered with documents and photographs, and the buffet is home to binders of stamps and other collectibles. As they work, volunteers are digitizing their finds with the intention of adding this history into the university’s digital archives.
History student Harry Hodgert has been working with the documents, cataloging the letters and memorabilia for the university’s Knight-Capron Library so those interested in the collection can view the documents.
These collections have inspired a rethinking of the decor in the Cloverlea farmhouse. Each room will be themed off the finds from the attic with displays telling the history of the home and the Claytor family.
“What we’re hoping to do with this history project is create themes or clusters of history,” Cerulli said.
For instance, a ground floor bedroom will reflect Boyd Claytor’s business interests. The near-mint-condition Remington typewriter will be displayed there, along with documents and logos from Southern Flavorings, which makes baking extracts and flavorings.
Original blueprints of additions to the house and the gardens will be displayed in the great room of the main house and the history of the land itself will be told through aerial photography climbing the walls of the two-story entryway.
The master suite will reflect Virginia Claytor’s debutante years through her marriage to Boyd. Fancy hats, shoes and even her wedding dress and veil will be on display, as well as letters to and from old beaus.
“We even found the letterpress plates that were used to create their invitation,” Cerulli said.
Other bedrooms will feature vintage games, portions of the stamp collection and one room will bear an aviary theme and another will feature a military theme along with Claytor’s preserved World War II uniform.
The staff plans to partner with the university’s museum studies department to create meaningful displays in each of the rooms.
As Cloverlea becomes a sort of living museum, it will remain a wedding and events venue, as well as lodging. The house and grounds provide for picture perfect moments, from the massive ash tree with its swing to the elaborate gardens and reflecting pool.
Cerulli understands why brides want to tie the knot there. She began volunteering at the observatory in 2010, and after spending an afternoon walking the grounds, she knew that is where she wanted to get married.
“When I came out for a hike and picnic and saw this,” she said, gesturing to the panoramic mountain views, “I hadn’t even met my husband yet, and I was like, ‘I’m going to get married here.’ This place just has a magic about it that you just fall in love with. I fell in love with every part of this place.”
In the garden behind the house is a reflecting pool where many a bride takes photographs.
The original construction dates to about 1790 but the house was added onto over the years, with the first addition, nicknamed the Buttermilk Wing, constructed in the mid 1800s. It received that nickname since the family paid for its construction by making and selling buttermilk.
The line between older and newer construction can be seen in the chimneys. The oldest part of the house has stone chimneys painted white, while the newer portion’s chimneys are painted brick.
In the foyer of the Buttermilk Wing, the story of the property and its ownership will be told through aerial photography climbing up to the second floor. Cerulli said the displays will span the height of the walls so portions will be viewed as one climbs the steps.
The Claytors built the east wing in the 1960s; that portion contains a fully equipped kitchen that was modernized in the early 2000s that still portrays that classic 1950s feel with its black and white tile pattern.
The second floor is a little choppy and isn’t really conducive to renting out the house room by room, though it is available for whole house rentals.
“We’re not exactly sure what the floorplan was back when it was originally built,” Cerulli said.
The 1960s addition also included a dining room with one windowed wall looking out over the rolling landscape to the mountains. Above the dining room was a porch that later was enclosed to a sunroom. That space now is called the reflection room and it provides breathtaking views of the property.
“When you walk outside ... you have even more,” Cerulli said. “Every way you turn there’s something beautiful.”
Weddings are held on a flat portion of the yard near the three-car garage. Because of COVID-19, they are restricting the number of people in the house to a dozen, so the indoor events are quite limited.
The land was farmland, and as volunteers work to unearth the history inside the house, they also are working to learn the history of the land itself. The lake, for instance, doesn’t show up in early aerial photographs and the genealogical research reflects that there were up to 16 enslaved people at one point living on the property.